From the first seconds of the opening "Life Is a Carnival," it was clear that Cahoots was no ordinary album by The Band. The quintet's first three albums had established them as major proponents of the rootsy genre that would later be called "Americana." But now, the sound blasting from the speakers was one of sheer funk: simultaneously dark and joyful, aggressive yet inviting. In what might have been considered a heretical move by some, the group was bolstered by three saxophones, two trumpets, and two trombones, all courtesy of New Orleans' own Allen Toussaint. The Band wasn't in Kansas, er, Woodstock anymore. Now, Cahoots has been remixed, remastered, and revisited for its 50th anniversary in a deluxe 2CD/1BD/1LP box set from Capitol/UMe which asks - no, demands - listeners reconsider what's long been held as a minor entry in The Band's storied catalogue.
At the heart of Cahoots is a top-to-bottom album remix by Bob Clearmountain from the original multitrack tapes. While Clearmountain performed this task for each of the three previous box sets (Music from Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright) with solid results, his approach to remixing Cahoots was much more radical. As he explains in Rob Bowman's definitive liner notes, "[Some] of the arrangements, I actually changed. I would take things out. Robbie [Robertson] thought it was a little too cluttered...He gave me a lot of leeway: 'Let's make this like a new record!'" Whereas the first three albums might have been considered "sacred cows," Cahoots holds no such place in the group's history. The resulting presentations - Clearmountain remixed the album in 2.0 stereo (on CD and LP), 5.1 DTS-HD, and 7.1 Dolby Atmos (the latter two on Blu-ray) - have the potential to polarize. But when viewed as an alternate experience that exists alongside, rather than in place of, the original mix, it's altogether gripping.
Those equipped with surround options are urged to take advantage of them for Cahoots. Whereas the original album is relatively dry, the remix is awash in reverb and delay. The extremely discrete 5.1 surround mix places the listener in the middle of the musical carnival, with the instruments clearly and immediately defined as spread across the front three channels before Toussaint's smoking horns enter in the rear channels at around the 15-second mark. (TSD does not have a Dolby Atmos-enabled playback device and did not experience the 7.1 mix in that format.) When the brass and winds intertwine with Robertson's lead guitar midway through, the electricity is near-palpable. It's one of many moments on the refreshed Cahoots that sound so present and so crisp, one can be forgiven for not believing this album was recorded five decades ago.
"Life Is a Carnival," co-written by Robertson while under the spell of the 1945 Marcel Carne film Les Enfants du Paradise, was just one of Cahoots' many film-inspired songs. He admits to Rob Bowman, "Whether it's the John Ford thing in 'Smoke Signal,' or Truffaut in 'The Moon Struck One,' or Howard Hawks in 'The River Hymn' or Charlie Chan movies in 'Shootout in Chinatown.' My interest at the time was even more in cinema than it was in song." Indeed, Cahoots would look forward to the songwriter's future collaborations with director Martin Scorsese.
"Shootout in Chinatown" is reinvented in Clearmountain's mix. Its new, widescreen introduction boasts an ethereal fade-in and added emphasis on Garth Hudson's organ as it emulates a marimba. The instruments build and swirl in the rear channels before the drums and vocals come into the center front. It's a much more atmospheric mix than the original, not to mention immersive. "Thinking Out Loud" seems a mélange of filmic imagery: Transylvania, the circus, the hotel and the house dick. Clearmountain better balances the vocals and instrumentation of the tune, giving Rick Danko's lead more clarity.
Robbie Robertson, who wrote or co-wrote every track except one on Cahoots, was also concerned about the vanishing America. While he romanticizes the traveling carnival in the opening song, he's rueful and withering in "Last of the Blacksmiths": "Have mercy, cried the blacksmith/How you gonna replace human hands?" asks Richard Manuel on the poignant lead. "Found guilty, said the judge/For not being in demand." ("Blacksmiths" is just one of the many tracks here where Garth Hudson impresses on grand piano rather than organ. His touch on the keys is alternately stately as on "The River Hymn" or outright rocking as on "Smoke Signals.") Robertson was even more explicit in "Where Do We Go from Here," sung by Rick Danko and Levon Helm. The Canada-born songwriter questions the disappearance of American symbols such as the eagle and the railroad with equal parts anger and resignation. In one of the many subtle but effective grace notes throughout the mix, "Where Do We Go from Here" gains a brief a cappella tag. Not every song is quite so lofty; "Volcano" is sheer lust made manifest. It, too, was enhanced with full-throttle brass.
The lone composition not having involved Robertson, Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," is one of Cahoots' strongest and most beloved tracks. Like so many of the Bard of Hibbing's finest songs, multiple meanings can be parsed from the impressionistic lyric. But what's undeniable is how Levon Helm's earthy, world-weary vocal so beautifully captures the ruminations of a globetrotting, obviously successful man at the top of the world who still is aiming high, still yearning to paint that elusive masterpiece.
Dylan wasn't the only songwriting great who stopped by the sessions. Then a resident of The Band's Woodstock home base, Van Morrison dropped in to co-write the loose, rousing "4% Pantomime" with Robertson and sing it with Richard Manuel. The title refers to the difference in alcohol percentage between two Johnnie Walker whiskies, as well as to the theatrics of Morrison and Manuel in the studio. The song's atmosphere is appropriately booze-drenched as the two vocalists deliciously trade lines in the seedy backstage milieu.
Five bonus tracks have been appended to the CD and Blu-ray sequences of the original album. While the Cahoots-era version of "Endless Highway," an alternate of "When I Paint My Masterpiece," and the deliriously funky outtake "Don't Do It" (a.k.a. Motown favorite "Baby Don't You Do It") have all been previously released, they've been impressively remixed here by Bob Clearmountain in stereo and surround. A newly-mixed track with Takes 1-2 of "4% Pantomime" also makes its debut here. The discrete mixes breathe new life into the familiar bonuses, and "Pantomime" is a particular delight; Manuel and Morrison's mutual affection is so apparent, especially when Morrison can barely suppress his laughter at the larger-than-life duet. The outtake "Bessie Smith," in its original mix, is included in stereo only.
Accompanying the 2021 mix of Cahoots is the official premiere of Live at the Olympia Theatre, Paris, May, 1971. It's labeled "Bootleg, Partial Concert," and indeed, sound quality is comparable to that of a bootleg. It's completely listenable but jarring nonetheless in the context of this package. The May 25, 1971 concert was recorded by a French radio station and filmed by local media, but all that's survived is the one reel (of about 53 minutes' length and 11 songs) presented here. Though Bowman explains that the concert wasn't sold out, The Band didn't hold anything back for the Olympia audience. While Cahoots' September release date was still some months away, Messrs. Robertson, Helm, Manuel, Danko, and Hudson regaled the crowd with highlights from their three previous long-players plus energetic runs through "Don't Do It," another Motown oldie, "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever," and Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'." Expectedly, the live concert setting gave The Band opportunity to musically stretch out beyond the confines of the studio. They were rewarded by the audibly enthusiastic attendees. The partial recording deprives us of the likes of "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Shape I'm In" but does include "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Chest Fever," to name two highlights. Though the concert isn't revelatory - it's rather difficult to compete, anyway, with Rock of Ages and The Last Waltz - it's an enjoyable, welcome addition to the box despite the audio limitations. Three studio bonuses follow the concert: instrumental mixes of "Life Is a Carnival" (yet another opportunity to savor the band's tight interplay and Allen Toussaint's brass!) and "Volcano," and a stripped-down version of "Thinkin' Out Loud."
Cahoots, produced by Frank Collura and mastered by Adam Ayan at Gateway Mastering, is packaged in the same style as its predecessors, with the contents housed within a sturdy box with a lift-off lid. One folder contains the three discs in individual slots plus a bonus 45 recreating the Japanese pressing of "Life Is a Carnival" b/w "The Moon Struck One." (The attention to detail is commendable on the single; it includes a reprint of the original sheet with lyrics in both Japanese and English.) The LP is presented in a gatefold jacket replicating the original release. The box also contains three prints: band photos by Barry Feinstein and Richard Avedon, and Gilbert Stone's cover painting. The impressive 24-page squarebound booklet has Bowman's comprehensive chronicle of both the album and this reissue plus memorabilia, tape box scans, and photos from Feinstein, Barrie Wentzell, and Tom Wilkes. It is lamentable, though, that there are a number of typos in the text including misspellings of Howard Hawks, the surname of Jim Seals' singing partner Dash Crofts, and the Johnnie Walker brand.
While few might be likely to name Cahoots as their favorite Band album, this 50th anniversary edition might be the best yet in this box set series. While the Bob Clearmountain mixes don't and shouldn't replace the originals (which are still available in various formats), they're wholly captivating, and give ample reason to revisit Cahoots at 50.
2CD/LP/BD/7-inch single: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
2CD (2021 Mix of Original Album plus Live at the Olympia): Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
1LP (2021 Mix of Original Album): Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada